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Reeder: New gas cans show how product litigation costs us all

Updated: October 18, 2013 6:29AM



I pulled up to a gasoline pump earlier this month and noticed a fellow struggling with a gas can.

He gave me an exasperated look and said, “These new cans are almost impossible to use.”

There’s no doubt about that.

Gas cans are now being made with removable funnels instead of spouts.

Or if a can does have a spout, it also has some sort of check valve on it that makes it difficult to empty or fill.

But don’t blame the engineers. Blame the trial lawyers.

Litigation has imperiled the domestic safety can industry.

In fact, last year, Blitz USA, then the nation’s largest gas-can maker, went out of business after spending $30 million defending itself in court and still owed about $3 million in lawyer fees at the time of its bankruptcy, according to news reports.

How often do you see a company such as Blitz, with 75 percent of the domestic market, shut its doors?

It wasn’t the vagaries of the marketplace that put the firm out of business but the legal system.

Some products can never be perfectly safe, particularly when people don’t use them wisely. The Wall Street Journal reported that most of the lawsuits against Blitz came from folks who tried to pour gasoline onto fires and were burned.

Who speaks for the rest of us who are wise enough not to pour gasoline onto open fires but are still forced to pay more for products that are harder to use?

The cost of litigation gets passed on in the price of products. For example, I had a five-gallon steel gasoline can stolen from my garage last month. It cost more than $70 to replace. That’s about $30 more than the one that was stolen.

While Blitz was an Oklahoma company, Illinois businesses are even more vulnerable to lawsuits.

In 2012, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform ranked Illinois 46th of the 50 states for its legal fairness.

Both Cook and Madison counties have been labeled “litigation hell holes” by the group, said Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

“This hurts commerce within the state,” Akin said. “Small businesses don’t have the resources to budget for this type of litigation.”

He said there are a variety of reasons why Illinois has a less favorable litigation climate.

“Part of it is our political culture,” he said. “Judges here are more likely to be tolerant of frivolous lawsuits and more likely to accept lawsuits from other jurisdictions.”

Certain areas, such as Madison and Cook counties, are perceived to be desirable places to file lawsuits because judges and juries there are viewed as more favorable to plaintiffs.

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said it’s time for lawmakers to restrict this type of “forum shopping” by attorneys.

Murnane said the state needs to look for ways to restrict “pain and suffering” judgments.

“If someone is truly hurt and fault is found, they should be compensated for their economic damages but not for perceived pain and suffering,” he said.

After all, 117 Blitz factory workers in Oklahoma are suffering because their plant shut down.

And consumers are suffering with more expensive products that are harder to use.

Where is our societal concern for those people?

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.



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